One of the remarkable truths about those who hold a visceral hatred of Rush Limbaugh is the high likelihood they have never listened to his show or read any of his books. They just know they strongly dislike Limbaugh for a good reason, one they can usually validate with a quick search of what others have said about him along with a quote or two for evidence.
The most tangible demonstration of this phenomenon is the newly discovered controversy over a brief segment Rush performed in 1990 called the “AIDS Update.” Prior to his passing, this segment only appeared in a few brief references, cited in a few books and contemporary articles. Outside of that, it seems to have been forgotten until rediscovered upon learning of Limbaugh’s passing with the intention of publicizing every incendiary thing he ever said or was accused of saying.
The segment was included in The New York Times’ obituary of Limbaugh and quickly spread on Twitter, with thousands of influential accounts tweeting that Rush once made fun of AIDS patients on his radio show in the 1980s and ’90s. Paul Elliott Johnson, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh specializing in communication and rhetoric, represented the most common claim in a viral tweet in which he claimed, “Rush Limbaugh had a regular radio segment where he would read off the names of gay people who died of AIDS and celebrate it and play horns and bells and stuff.”
According to Newsweek, the word “AIDS” alongside Limbaugh’s name was the third-most searched term on Google. Even those active in the LGBT movement at the time, like Andrew Sullivan, stated they had never heard of this before.
It did happen, just not in the way it has very quickly been popularized on social media. There are no recordings of the segment reported yet. We do know of some details, however, such as The New York Times obituary that states, “Mr. Limbaugh ran a regular segment called ‘AIDS updates,’ in which he mocked the deaths of gay men by playing Dionne Warwick’s recording of the song ‘I’ll Never Love This Way Again.’”
The Iowa Cedar Gazette reported in March 1990 a similar description, as did James Retter in his 1998 book “The Anatomy of a Scandal” and Ze’ev Chafets in his 2010 book, “Rush Limbaugh: An Army of One.” None of the sources indicate Limbaugh read the names of gay men who had died of AIDS on air.
Limbaugh told the Gazette, “The AIDS update is, as is everything I do, politically oriented and based upon my reaction to what I consider to be extremism in the political mainstream by a group of people.” He went on to specific that he was not targeting AIDS victims but the militant gay rights movement of the time that “blame[s] church and government officials for the epidemic.”
He said, “It’s a behaviorally spread disease and they attempt to absolve themselves of any responsibility for the actions they’ve taken (then) suggest people who disagree with them get banned from television,” He continued, “So The AIDS update is meant to offend them. D-mn right.”
Most relevant here, however, is Limbaugh’s response in December 1990 as The New York Times reported Limbaugh “feeling a greater responsibility as his audience grows. He killed a running bit on AIDS after two weeks. ‘It’s the single most regretful thing I’ve ever done,’ he says, “because it ended up making fun of people who were dying long, painful and excruciating deaths, when they were not the target. It was a totally irresponsible thing to do.”
In Chafet’s book, Limbaugh is quoted as saying, “I engaged in an AIDS Update that missed the mark totally and ended up being very insensitive to people who were dying.”
While each source notes Limbaugh’s apology, which was not due to any reported backlash or threats from sponsors but from his own initiative, they intentionally put the segment in their headlines. The story ironically is not that the firebrand who enjoyed intentionally stirring up political controversy to confront leftwing political correctness did something abhorrent, but that he realized he went too far and was harming people who didn’t deserve it, apologized, and then ended the segment on his own.
Unfortunately, this fact is either glossed over or dismissed by the vast majority of people eager to demonize him as a person. GLAAD, for example, insisted, “Rush Limbaugh spent much of his career maliciously attacking LGBTQ people, including mocking those impacted by the AIDS crisis. News outlets reporting on his death should include this hateful history.” This sudden demand to remind everyone of his sins is most striking considering they forgot it themselves, if they ever knew it happened in the first place.
Leftwing activists often lecture us on the importance of personal growth and redemption, yet they stubbornly feel entitled to withhold forgiveness when it politically suits them. The 2001 “Missouri Biographical Dictionary,” one of the sources of the controversy, reported that Limbaugh donated $10,000 to the Pediatric AIDS Foundation after ending the segment. This act of charity was dismissed by LGBTQ Nation as a “slight” to gay and bi men who were dying of AIDS because the donation went to helping children with the disease.
As a person living with HIV and having lived with it for more than a decade, I know how cruel people can be about this disease and I am well aware of how many on the right responded to it in the 1980s and early ’90s. But I also know genuine regret and compassion when I see it and that was demonstrated by Limbaugh. Whatever motivated Limbaugh’s most controversial statements over the decades, the people who knew him best knew him as kind, funny, generous, and genuine, which shines through this particular controversy.
It seems that rather than attempt to hold him eternally accountable for his sins, this one in particular, what should matter most is the context and the consequence. Limbaugh engaged in his typical blunt and bombastic style to comment on how the gay movement chose to respond to the HIV/AIDS epidemic in its early years. Once he realized he was unfairly harming innocent people he never meant to insult or mock, he stopped, apologized, and donated money to help end the HIV/AIDS crisis. That is what should be remembered.